Selected Poems (Dunbar, Paul)
Paul Laurence Dunbar was “the most promising young colored man” in nineteenth-century America, according to Frederick Douglass, and subsequently one of the most controversial. His plantation lyrics, written while he was an elevator boy in Ohio, established Dunbar as the premier writer of dialect poetry and garnered him international recognition. More than a vernacular lyricist, Dunbar was also a master of classical poetic forms, who helped demonstrate to post–Civil War America that literary genius did not reside solely in artists of European descent. William Dean Howells called Dunbar’s dialect poems “evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all.”
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Minstrel shows are best known for their performances in "Blackface." This was a white actor using makeup to appear to be African American. In minstrel shows African Americans were often parodied as buffoonish, idiotic, moronic, dim-witted, or ignorantly living a blissful life. Often a man in blackface would speak using malapropisms, nonsense words, or puns that parodied a dialect. For more information about the structure of the shows, a clip of a blackface performer, and historical context of the shows, click on the link below. (This annotation contains a link)
For a complete definition of Romanticism, please click on the video clip below. It is important to note that Dunbar was also influenced by the sentimental genre of literature. According to Shirley Samuels in her essay, "Sentimentalism and Domestic Fiction, sentimental literature used "the power of feelings [to] effect right action." Sentimental literature featured characters that were often led and swayed by emotions. The writers also used pathos in order to appeal to the audience's emotions. Romantic and sentimental literature were often used to engage the audience in a discussion to greater social issues; a prime example of this is the text Uncle Tom's Cabin. Both the Romantic movement and the sentimental genre were responses to the Enlightenment movement. (This annotation contains a video)
The author of the introduction refers to Dunbar's poetry as dialect poems, it simply means the vernacular of the African American Slaves. His dialect poetry received mixed reviews because some critics believed it negatively portrayed African Americans in a stereotypical light.
Howell's review was of Dunbar's Majors and Minors.
The author of the introduction notes that Dunbar's praise was caveated with the notation that he was a descendant from slaves. In contemporary society, this may be celebrated because it would indicate that the person persevered and succeed. In this case, the author points out that there is nothing to attribute Dunbar's success despite it heritage. Dunbar "had achieved for Africans and African Americans."
The author contends that Dunbar writes with a "consistent ironic tone even when the characters he presents seem to mocking themselves." To review the definition of irony, please view the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
It is important to understand the historical context of Dunbar's works. He is living and writing in the post-Civil War era of the United States. During the Reconstruction period, there was tension between many groups in the United States. White southerners were bitter over the loss in the Civil War and the forcing of releasing African Americans from enslavement. This not only destroyed the Southern economy, but also resulted in the rise of hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and eventually Jim Crow Laws that legalized segregation and restricted African American rights. For the newly freed African Americans, there was a urgency to be educated, find employment, purchase land, and define themselves as American citizens.
When the author of the introduction uses the term "accomodationist," he is referring to African American figures who sought to compromise with White Southerners after the Civil War. Many critics believed that Booker T. Washington was an accomodationist because of his speech where he stated that whites and blacks "in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Many people believed Washington was supporting the idea of segregation rather than working to unify the races and eliminate prejudice.
Below is Bearden's piece titled The Lamp. (This annotation contains an image)
FROM OAK AND IVY 1893
In the title Oak refers to the poems in traditional English verse and Ivy refers to the poems in dialect. As you read the poetry, utilize the TPCASTT approach in order to help you understand the speaker, content, use of poetic devices, themes, and how the poem relates to the audience. Below is a link to the TPCASTT template. (This annotation contains an image)
What your first impressions of the title? Does it conjure any images or preconceived ideas?
Stop reading for a moment and be sure that you can paraphrase the events in the poem thus far. To review the difference between paraphrasing and summary, please click on the link below. If you are having difficulty reading the dialect, you should try reading the poem aloud. (This annotation contains a link)
The speaker of the poem says, "An' somehow my that hits chock/ An' a lump keeps trying' to rise/ Lak it wan'ed to ketch de water/ Dat was flown' to my eyes." This stanza is an example of a(n)
What theme is the author trying to reinforce through the repetition of the image of the banjo on "de wall"?
Using TPCASTT, you should be able to identify some literary devices the author employs in order to convey the attitude or tone of the speaker, the mood of the piece, and the overall theme of the piece. (Please view the video below to review the difference between tone and mood.) When you revisit the title, does it have a different meaning from when you first read it? Does the banjo have a symbolic meaning rather than simply a literal meaning? (This annotation contains a video)
This poem was inspired by Dunbar's time in Chicago at the World Colombian Exposition also known as the World's Fair. As a result of his work at the Haitian Pavilion, Dunbar met and developed a relationship with Frederick Douglass. An ode is a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter. This ode is dedicated to Columbus, not the country of Columbia. It was inspired by Dunbar's work at the World's Fair that celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America.
How does the rhyme scheme change from Stanza I through Stanza III? What do you think the author is trying to convey about Manifest Destiny through this change in structure?
James Whitcomb Riley was known as the "Hoosier Poet" because he hailed from Indiana. He also wrote in the dialect style and some critics believed Dunbar emulated his style in his dialect poetry. For more information on Riley, please click on the link below. (This annotation contains a link)
When you read a poem, be sure to consider who is the speaker of the poem. Often the author is not the speaker of the poem. In this case, who is the speaker? Is the speaker male or female?
This poem is written in the dialect style and addresses the ideas of appearances. Based on the third stanza, what does the speaker imply about appearances and character?
Why do you think Dunbar chose to use a less sophisticated style such as dialect to convey the theme that class, wealth, and appearance are not indicative of a strong character? Would you consider this poem to be a sentimental piece? Why or why not?
This Ode is dedicated to Ethiopia. Slavery is a deeply engrained element of the Ethiopian culture. In Ethiopia you could be enslaved based on your social class, if you became a prisoner of war, if you married a slave, or as a punitive measure if you committed a crime. Though the slave trade to the Americas was primarily from Western Africa, there is much debate about whether Ethiopians were also included in the American slave trade. Could Dunbar use the idea of Ethiopia to symbolize all African nations?
In the highlighted excerpt, which literary device does the author use in order to appeal to the reader's emotions?
In the highlighted stanza, the speaker uses a literary allusion to the crucifixion of Christ from the Bible. Christ was forced to carry the cross that he would hang from. The expression, "the cross I bear" refers to the cross as a symbol of the duty Christ accepted and fulfilled to give his life to cleanse humanity of sin. What is the "cross" does the speaker imply Ethiopia must bear?
The first line of the poem "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!" is alluded to in Maya Angelou's poem and autobiography of the same name "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." A link to the poem is provided below. (This annotation contains a link)
In the original poem this line actually begins the second stanza.
The poem is about a bird in cage who watches the world just beyond the iron bars and laments that it cannot partake in that world. What is this poem a metaphor for?
FROM MAJORS AND MINORS 1895
The title of this set of poetry is similar to Oak and Ivy in that the term Majors refers to poems written in standard English verse whereas the term Minors refers to poems written in dialect.
While Dunbar was never a slave, both of his parents were former slaves. His father was actually an escaped slave who in turn fought in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment in the Civil War.
The speaker of the poem compares the African Americans who enlisted as soldiers for the Union to unleashed hounds. Which term best characterizes the African American soldiers when they were called upon to fight?
In what is known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, the Union soldiers surrendered and under rules of engagement should have been taken as prisoners of war, but instead the Confederate troops murdered over three hundred black soldiers. This was the Confederates way of demonstrating that they did not believe a black man could be a soldier.
When the speaker of the poem asks, "They were comrades then and brothers, are they more or less to-day?" it signals a shift in tone from _________ to ___________.
Frederick Douglass was a former slave who became the leader of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Dunbar initially met Douglass at the World's Fair. For more information about Douglass's life and work, please view the brief video below. (This annotation contains a video)
The final lines of this stanza are known as a rhyming couplet. Couplets are often used to emphasize an idea.
The speaker of the poem describes Douglass fighting the "torrent wrath" of men in order to speak "for his race" and not for himself. Based on the speaker's characterization of Douglass, which term best defines his role in the African American movement?
Which appeal does Dunbar employ in the final stanza of the poem?
The first four lines are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that each line consists of four feet, or pairs of syllables. Each of the feet are iambs which means they are a combination of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Click on the link below to read about the other forms of meter and feet. (This annotation contains a link)
What does the change in meter within the stanza indicate?
The speaker ends each stanza with the same line to emphasize the importance of the man's dream in his life. Though he endures hardships, he is able to persevere and surmount obstacles because of his dream.
This is an ode or a lyrical poem that is celebrating Memorial Day. Consider this: Why is the poem "Frederick Douglass" not an ode? How do these two poems differ in structure and content?
In the final lines of the second stanza, the speaker states, "Ah, but the day is past: silent the rattle/ And the confusion that followed the fight." What does the speaker allude to in these lines?
What is the tone of the speaker in the last stanza?
This poem is a prime example of how Dunbar's standard English poetry differs in tone and mood from his dialect poetry. His standard English poetry tends to be more dark and morose. This is also indicative of the Romantic period. Other dark Romantic writers include Edgar A. Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The dark Romantics wrote about human fallibility and their inclination to sin and self-destruction.
Which literary device does the author use to convey the speaker's despondency?
Each stanza contains a rhyming couplet. The first four lines express one idea and the couplet expresses the speaker's reaction to the idea.
Each line of the stanza ends with a punctuation mark. The poetic term for this is known as the line is end-stopped. This means that the line completes an idea. The opposite of an end-stop is an enjambment, which is when two lines run together and lack punctuation at the end of each line. The use of end-stops changes the tone and can influence the overall theme of the poem.
The speaker states, "While others dream within the dell; / But even while my brow is wet, / I sing my song, and all is well. /" What does he imply about his song?
Using TPCASTT, record your initial impressions when you read this title. Upon reading the poem, interpret the title of the poem based on the content.
The speaker implies that his smiles and grins are "guile." Why does he feel that he must obscure his "tears and sighs" from the world?
What does the dynamic between the speaker and the masks symbolize?
When you think of the term "accountability" what comes to mind? Cite at least three examples of current events that involve accountability.
Do you think that Dunbar is arguing that African Americans are or are not accountable for their actions? How can either argument be detrimental towards the African Americans' plight during the post-Civil War era?
Antebellum refers to the period of time prior to the Civil War. This period was known for rising tensions between the Northern states and the Southern states over many issues: state's rights, slavery, and economic issues of the industrialized North and the agrarian South.
The speaker alludes to the plight of Moses and the Israelites to escape the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh in this poem in order to convey which belief?
Which of the following excerpts from the texts signifies a shift in the tone of the speaker?
In the first four to five stanzas, the tone of the poem is edifying. The speaker wishes to inspire and instill hope in his audience that they can persevere and will be rewarded by the Lord for their patience. But the tone of the poem changes when the speaker indicates that he is referencing the Bible and not the present day. How does this change the impact of the speakers' intent and the effect on the audience?
Why does the speaker say that when their Moses comes to set them free, "We will praise de gracious Mastah / Dat has gin us liberty"?
Which poetic device does the author employ in the highlighted excerpt?
Though both "An Antebellum Sermon" and "Religion" deal with the dynamics of religion and the African American community, the tones in the two poems are starkly contrasted. Rather than writing in dialect, Dunbar chooses to write this poem in standard English; this indicates a more serious and almost bitter tone. What is the central fault he finds with faith in a higher authority and the status of the African Americans?
After the Civil War ended, the freed slaves faced many obstacles because of their newly gained freedom. They needed to be educated, find jobs, purchase land, and establish their cultural identity separate from their lives as slaves. Many abolitionists and activists believed education was the key to achieving these goals.
The winner of the spelling bee receives a "little blue-backed spell in'-book with fancy scarlet trimmin'" that the speaker states "every speller in the house felt mortal bound to get." What does the speaker imply about education with his use of hyperbole?
Which literary device does Dunbar utilize to create humor within the highlighted passage?
Dunbar is able to convey multiple messages throughout his dialect poems. Though these poems are known for their levity, he is able to demonstrate the character and fortitude of the African Americans struggling to create an identity for themselves in the late nineteenth century.
Though this poem is fairly simple to interpret, it is also a prime example of the romantic influence in Dunbar's writing. A major element of Romanticism is the transcendence of man through nature. Man will have a better understanding of his life and purpose once he returns to a more primal or natural state. In order to illustrate the idea of "keep a-pluggin' away," Dunbar utilizes simple natural images such as quelling rising storms, "paths [that] are hard to climb," and weathering torrential rains.
The repetition of the line "Keep a-pluggin' away" is a literal and figurative attempt to convey which theme?
Is there a memory that you often think of when you are feeling sad and need to feel better? Why do you refer to that memory?
What does the image of "When yo' mammy says de blessing' / An' de co'n pone's hot" conveys all of the following to the reader except?
The speaker refers to "Men all dressed up in Prince Alberts, swiller-tails 'u'd tek yo' bref!" Below is a picture of a Prince Albert jacket or frock. (This annotation contains an image)
It is images like the one highlighted in the poem that led some of Dunbar's contemporaries to be critical of his use of dialect in his poetry. They felt as if he was acquiescing to the minstrel shows' parodies of African Americans.
Overall the tone of the poem is celebratory and joyous. What do you think Dunbar is trying to convey about the lives of the African Americans as they toil and work through his use of dialect and imagery?
This poem is about kinship and family, and it pays homage to the hardships that the African Americans endured to reach a place in history where they can legitimately fight for their equal rights as citizens. As a result, this poem is written in the dialect form and sentimental genre.
Based on the context, the term "buggah" implies what connotation?
A paradox is an idea formed from two contradictory concepts. A paradox may seem funny or foolish but usually has a latent truth.
The repetition used in the first stanza is known an anaphora. It is the repetition of the first part of a sentence or line to achieve effect. When used as a rhetorical device, it may be used to to appeal to the pathos of the audience.
Based on the paradoxes stated by the speaker, who is the speaker of the poem?
In the second to last stanza, he states, "Then shalt thou see me and know me -- / Death, then no longer, but life." What theme is conveyed through this line?
The speaker describes men as "the subtle worms, who plot and plan / And scheme and calculate with such shrewd wit." This is an example of which literary device?
This poem is a prime example of a dark romantic piece. The speaker explores a man's right to die at his own hands calling men "the coward who ... fears the false goblins of another life."
Throughout the poem, Dunbar uses enjambments in order to create tension within the piece. By stretching his ideas over two lines, he forces the reader to acknowledge them and spend time reading them.
This poem explores the various meanings of a perceived kiss.
The author explores the possibility of the "phantom kiss": from the bliss felt by a maiden who is kissed for the first time to the soft touch of the Angel of Death. Based on the final two lines of the poem, which term bests defines the tone of the poem?
Alexander Crummell was an anomaly in his era. Born in 1819 in New York City, Crummell defied racial barriers to become a minister, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and ardent advocate of the return to Africa movement. He believed that African Americans should immigrate back to Africa, and he lived there for two decades promoting Christianity and the relocation of communities back to Africa. (This annotation contains a link)
What does the speaker's use of simile in the highlighted passage convey?
Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her slave narrative Uncle Tom's Cabin. Though it is critically acclaimed for its moving rendition of the slave Uncle Tom who's adherence to his faith and his family cost him his life, the term "Uncle Tom" evolved to have a negative connotation. It began to mean a person who is subservient to authority figures.
What is the structure of the poem?
Consider the metrical structure of the poem. How does it help to develop the meaning of the poem?
The speakers of the poem are two older and experienced men talking as one strums the banjo. Often times in literature, archetypes of elderly people usually represent a bitterness about the past and hope for a better future or an acceptance and satisfaction with the past.
What does the speaker mean when he states, "Night is closing in on us, friend of mine, but don't be sad;"?
How does the rhyme scheme of the poem reflect the overall tone and mood of the poem?
The speaker of the poem refers to his "Mastah" but informs the audience that "he couldn't pay no mo." This implies that the former slaves were hired by their former master. Do you think the dynamic between Master and slave changed drastically because of a salary?
Why is the setting of the poem an important element in the development of the theme of loyalty and kin?
Read the poem and revisit the title. Who is protesting? What is protested?
The majority of Dunbar's dialect poems are lighter in content and tone. The title "Protest" is misleading because it does not intimate about content or tone.
Unlike the other love poems, the speaker of the poem "When Malindy Sings" does not speak directly to his love. He speaks to Miss Lucy about his love's musical ability and praises her.
The highlighted line is an example of
As the speaker listens to Malindy sing he says, "Let me listen, I can hyeah it, / Th'oo de brush of angels wings." This is an example of which literary device?
The definition of tryst is an appointed meeting. This meeting may be a secret meeting by lovers.
This poem is a prime example of a sentimental piece of poetry. Dunbar's use of pathos in order to appeal to his audience's emotions allows the reader to connect with the speaker's plight to see his lover. This poem is also interesting because prior to the emancipation of the slaves in the South, a tryst would be a dangerous meeting. This would require a slave to leave the plantation and meet with another slave. While enslaved, African Americans were not encouraged to maintain any familial bonds because slaveowners wanted to maintain control over the slaves.
The repetition of the phrase "wait fu' me" is included at the end of each stanza in order to convey what tone?
As you read the poem, note any structure or form that is indicative of a lullaby. Click on the link below for a brief description of lullaby structure, form and purpose. (This annotation contains a link)
How is this poem similar to a lullaby? Use textual evidence to support your claim.
The theme of this poem is about the safety and security of family. This is a similar sentiment expressed by Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery. He was a child living as a slave on a plantation and grew up to run a school for African American students. Washington cites many examples of how his life changed drastically over the years- especially in terms of food. Even though Washington ate well as an adult, on china plates, and in dining rooms around the world, there was nothing better to him than the taste of molasses on bread on a plate because of the memory of his family and mother associated with this meal. Sometimes it doesn't matter where you are or what you are doing, it only matters about who you are with.
This collection contains two lullabies: one is for a plantation child and written in dialect. This is for the fisher child and is written in standard English. As you read, consider other similarities or differences between the two poems.
Who is the speaker of the poem?
Does the the structure and form of this poem adhere to the structure and form of a lullaby? Cite examples to support your answer.
Which literary device does the speaker employ in order to convey an emphasis on the mutability of dreams?
The structure of this poem is iambic tetrameter.
The structure and content of the poem is most like which style of writing?
Based on the second stanza, who is the speaker of the poem?
During World War II, Vera Lynn sang one of the most popular songs, "We'll Meet Again." A video clip and lyrics are linked below. How do the sentiments in the song and the poem compare? (This annotation contains a video)
Unlike other dialect poems, the tone of this poem is more dark and somber. How does the author use the event of the Civil War in the poem?
Using the define feature in the Curriculet, look up the multiple definitions of the word "captious." The author implies all of the following about the critic except?
The poem is a quatrain. A quatrain is a group of four lines that express one unified idea. The meter is iambic pentameter. Why do you think Dunbar chose a specific structure to express his disdain for his critic?
What is the structure of this poem? Why do you think Dunbar chooses to use this structure and standard English in a poem about Booker T. Washington?
Booker T. Washington and Dunbar were similar in that they were criticized by both the white and African American community. Both men were viewed as "accomodationists" which means that they were at times comfortable with the subservient role to white men.
The poem is told from the perspective of the oak tree. Why do you think Dunbar chose to personify a tree rather than have a person be the speaker of the poem?
The tree notes that the men who seek to hang the man "have no care for his innocence, / And the rope they bear is long." What is the rope a metaphor for?
What is unique about the rhyme scheme in each stanza?
The haunted oak is a metaphor for the emotions that remain after a senseless act of violence against the African Americans occurs.
The author of the introduction believes that the rhythm in this poem "anticipates rap." The use of anaphora is reinforced in the rhyme scheme as well as in the repetition of the phrase "Jump back, honey, jump back."
What do the use of rhythm and anaphora contribute to the tone of the piece?
What does the speaker imply when he says, "Cose I know I's talkin' wild; / Treat me nice; / I cain't talk no bettah child, / Treat me nice"?
This poem is a response to the preceding poem in this collection is titled "The Sand-Man." After reading this poem, you may want to compare and contrast the two poems and their speaker, tone, and mood.
Who is the speaker of the poem?
The idea of a "mammy" is often portrayed in minstrel shows. The stereotypical portrayal of a "mammy" is an African American slave woman who nursed and raised the white children. Critics such as Charles T. Davis felt that Dunbar's inclusion of images such as the mammy reinforced the notion of the "old time Negro" who was satisfied with his or her life as a slave.
The speaker describes his mammy as someone who will "wipe yo' han's an' kiss you / Fo' dey life' you from you' cheah / To smile so sweet, / An' wash yo' feet." What appeal does Dunbar employ here?
Though the poem is a dialect poem, the author's use of the maternal reference is an element that can be universally appreciated. Rather than highlighting the differences between races and cultures, Dunbar demonstrates the similarities among all children and the love for their mothers.
What is the figurative meaning of the line, "My back is tiahed of its load"?
How does Dunbar use the elements of light and dark to illustrate the title of the poem?
The title of this collection is Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow. This poem and a few others represent the "shadow" or more somber and dark pieces within the text.
The speaker laments, "Yesterday the iron seared / And to-day means sorrow." What does he imply by employing this metaphor?
The speaker emphasizes which character trait of his wife by using alliteration in the line "She wrapped her should in a lace of lies"?
Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, and afterward Dunbar's suffered a nervous breakdown. Do you think his personal life was the source of inspiration for his work?
FROM HOWDY, HONEY, HOWDY 1905
Shortly after publishing this collection of poems, Dunbar's health declined and in early 1906 he died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three.
This poem is a prime example of Dunbar's lyrical poetry. The use of rhythm and rhyme combined with the content of the poem give the piece a great musicality.
The speaker ends each stanza with the line, "Howdy, honey, howdy, won't you step right in?" What does the repetition of this phrase juxtaposed with the ideas expressed in each stanza convey?
What is the first image that comes to mind when you read this title? Does the historical context influence your impression?
Though the poem is literally about the capturing of a duck for a meal, what could the duck be a metaphor for?
The highlighted excerpt is an example of a(n)
The tone of this poem is motivational. During the time that followed the emancipation of the slaves, there were many social, economic, and political issues that threatened the slaves' newly found freedom. There is also a prevalent theme in many works by African American authors of this time period: your actions speak louder than your words. Many African American activists and authors promoted education among the former slave communities because they believed that African Americans must learn to behave like citizens in order to be considered citizens. A prime example of this is Booker T. Washington's development of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute which is now known as Tuskegee University. He believed in educating the entire man and not simply teaching African Americans how to read or add properly.
The theme of this poem is that love endures. This is similar to Shakepeare's Sonnet 116. Below is a link to the sonnet. (This annotation contains a link)
Using the previous annotation, compare and contrast Shakepeare's Sonnet 116 to Dunbar's "Love is a Star." Specifically compare the structure and form of each piece and each author's use of imagery to convey the similar theme expressed in each piece.
The title of this poem is ironic because in 1900 the African Americans were freed citizens for about forty years, but their struggle to maintain their freedom would continue for another sixty years. With the advent of their freedom, groups such as the Klu Klux Klan formed and laws allowing segregation of races, limitations of voting rights, and inequities in education emerged. For more details about the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), please click on the link below. (This annotation contains a link)
Most of the poem is written in iambic pentameter. However, there are certain lines of the text that are eleven syllables rather than ten, such as the line, "Burst into blossoms of glory eternal." Identify the feet used by Dunbar in this line. What is Dunbar trying to convey by purposely changing the poetic feet and meter of certain lines throughout the poem?
Use the link below to help you answer the following question. (This annotation contains a link)